America faces a mental health crisis that predates the pandemic but has been significantly worsened by it. Employees have felt incredible stress, burnout, financial insecurity, increased strains on their mental health and a lack of supervisor support for more than a year now. This is especially true of essential workers. In an American Psychological Association poll conducted in February, nearly 3 in 10 essential workers said their mental health has worsened over the past year, and essential workers were two times more likely than nonessential workers to have been diagnosed with a mental-health disorder since the pandemic started.
Essential workers in agriculture and related industries–including the almost 3 million farmworkers who plant, pick and pack our food–make up a $1.1 trillion sector of America’s economy. As people panicked upon encountering empty supermarket shelves in the early days of the pandemic, there was renewed attention to farmworkers’ critical role in our society. But the labor conditions that farmworkers endure have further deteriorated since then, and many of these essential workers have had their lives endangered by a devastating combination of the COVID-19, employer neglect and mental-health challenges.
A dairy farmworker in Vermont, who told us that his mental state was fraying, recalled spending 12 hours milking cows only to later have to dump gallons of that milk because the farm didn’t have a buyer. It’s hard to imagine the cruel reality of being forced to get rid of perfectly good milk while struggling to provide your own family with much-needed food and money due to shortened work hours throughout the pandemic. His story is heartbreaking and unthinkable but all too common.
As we approach the high season for farmworkers, which overlaps with Mental Health Awareness Month, we need to renew our focus on the farmworker community and take action to support their physical, mental and emotional well-being. As a part of this effort, the federal government must take steps to establish new standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that address and protect all workers’ mental health.
Farmworkers have always faced trauma, anxiety and stress from their jobs, partly from being deprived of basic employment rights for more than 80 years. Farmworkers and their families have historically struggled with substandard, overcrowded living and working conditions, exposure to harmful pesticides, risk of serious injuries, poor access to health care and poverty-level wages. According to data from the most recent National Agricultural Worker Survey, 33% of farmworkers earn incomes well below the poverty line.
And through these enduring injustices, they have also been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic and left out of federal COVID-19 relief programs. Researchers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of farmers and farmworkers in the U.S. have contracted the virus and more than 10,000 have died. Efforts to organize farmworkers to fight for better conditions have been hindered by the high levels of reported trauma and insecurity in the community, especially among the country’s 900,000 farmworker women. A majority of farmworker women have reported that sexual harassment is a major workplace problem for them, and COVID-19 has sharply limited survivors’ access to help.
As it stands now, OSHA’s health and safety definitions for low-wage workers, including farmworkers, overwhelmingly focus on things like injury from heavy machinery, natural disasters, weather conditions and exposure to loud noises. These protections are essential, but so are those that would regulate how the workplace environment protects workers’ mental health.
Physical well-being is directly tied to our mental well-being, and both are tied to our ability to be productive at work. The Center for Disease Control estimates that depression costs workers more than 200 million lost work days, which translates to between $17 and $44 billion lost each year by employers.
In terms of other ways this plays out, one farmworker shared with us that the long-term lack of access to proper PPE and COVID-19 testing meant they were extremely worried about reporting to work, but they were compelled to risk both physical and mental health to earn a paycheck, so as not to end up homeless or hungry.
These kinds of stressors and mental health issues must be considered occupational health issues. Minimal recommendations, no real regulation around these issues and no in-depth plan to support the mental health of workers is not sufficient, especially as we’re all still dealing with the effects of the pandemic on our lives and livelihoods. The path forward is to create programs and opportunities for workers to receive mental-health support and treatment as it relates to workplace stressors. OSHA must create a standard for employers to actively address, prepare for and provide support to workers to cope with mental-health strain and issues, prioritizing essential workers like farmworkers and low-wage workers.
But we can’t wait for the federal government and OSHA to act. Supported by The Workers Lab and the Collective Future Fund, our teams at Justice for Migrant Women, the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, the Eva Longoria Foundation, and Latinx health and wellness experts are working with farmworkers in California and Florida to pilot a new approach to mental well-being. Our “Healing Voices” project convenes farmworkers in virtual support groups to address a critical gap in the farmworker organizing ecosystem–healing personal and community trauma as a necessary step in increasing farmworker power. Based on the results of our pilot, we’ll look to scale the program to reach farmworker communities nationwide.
No lesson from the pandemic is more clear than that our physical and mental health are inextricably linked and equally important. Care for our mental health must be prioritized, normalized and made accessible now–not just in our healthcare system, but in our workplaces and as a public health concern. The resiliency of our communities, our economy and our society depends on it.